City council meetings are famously dull. Anybody who's sat through one knows - you bite your nails, you squirm, you wish you lived in some other city.
But this summer, Boston City Council president Charles Yancey, introduced an ordinance to strike the word "minority" from the official city lexicon, he touched off a fight that has gotten even those dozing in the back row out of their seats and into the debate.
Some, across racial and ethnic lines, hate the word: They say it's narrow, insulting, and inaccurate in a city whose population is 51 percent people of color. Others find it useful as a designation for political and funding purposes.
Still others say that to fight such a linguistic battle with a city ordinance is foolish. The term originated in Washington in the late 1960s, and was intended as a government tool to identify disadvantaged groups. It has since acquired specific legal connotations, and the US Census and federal agencies that use it most have no plans to abandon it.
Councilor Yancey doesn't care. "Yes, it's a symbolic move," he says. "The definition is 'less than,' and that implies not only numerically, but in terms of power, prestige, significance. If you're called that, you're going to feel less than. The term is demeaning."
Florence Allen, coordinator of the Minority Recruitment Program at Boston Medical Center, sees the issue differently. "I am not demeaned if somebody calls me a minority," she says. Ms. Allen says she's from the Caribbean, she's black, and she's had her share of department store salespeople in this country follow her around, expecting her to steal something. So "I am a minority, in the sense that there are more of other groups than there is of me."
Critics fear that the designation "minority" isn't, and never has been, purely about numbers. As evidence, they cite the growing number of cities - 19 of the country's 50 largest, according to the most recent census - in which the combined African-American, Latino, native-American, and Asian-American populations total more than half the city.
Where the term lingers despite all demographic evidence to the contrary, says lexicographer Anne Soukhanov, it's not just out of laziness, but because "some gray-suited white men in a fancy office think they're better than other people."
Ms. Soukhanov, herself Caucasian, has spent a lifetime thinking about words. She and other editors of the Encarta World Dictionary were particularly careful in their definition of the word "minority" in the book's most recent edition. Definition 4 reads: "OFFENSIVE TERM; an offensive term for a minority member, now avoided by careful speakers because it can cause offense (offensive)."
Her dictionary was criticized by some for trying too hard to be politically correct. But Soukhanov says it had to be: "We're supposed to reflect the trends that are going on in society today, not the trends that were established by the Brothers Grimm."
The book's definitions caution users about minority and other terms - mostly slurs related to race, sexuality, or class - "to warn people that if they use those toward someone else, their use is a direct reflection upon them, the speakers, and not those they are victimizing," she says. "Because language is a loaded weapon - it really can be."
San Diego Deputy Mayor George Stevens sees the term as just the next choice in a long line of externally imposed labels. "First," he says, "we were called 'colored.' Then we were called 'Negroes.' We didn't choose either of those words, just like we didn't choose 'minority.' They were imposed on us, by white people." Several years ago, Mr. Stevens, who is African-American, proposed to a National League of Cities meeting that all members try to eliminate 'minority' from their cities' lexicons. His friend Councilor Yancey attended that meeting.
Last April, the San Diego City Council unanimously passed Stevens's ordinance. The city's public discussions and documents now use specific ethnic identifiers, which officials argue better address the concerns of particular communities. "Everybody deserves an identity that they chose themselves," Stevens says.
Last month, the Boston City Council voted 12 to 0 in favor of Yancey's proposed legislation. Then Boston Mayor Thomas Menino vetoed the ordinance, claiming the change would create too much confusion in the division of electoral districts and the distribution of city services. Now Yancey is seeking to win over the mayor. If he fails, he hopes the council will override the mayor's veto.
Though only a handful of Boston public offices and documents would be affected by his ordinance, Yancey says it is worth fighting for, because of the hope it represents. "At least [when they're the minority party] in Congress, the Republicans always maintain the hope of taking over the Senate again, and the Democrats maintain the hope of taking over the House. They know it's not a permanent status of powerlessness."
Yancey says that even in cities where people of color are the majority, they continue to be referred to as 'minority' - implying that the term is synonymous with Latino, African-American, and Asian-American. He worries that young people won't go into politics because of it.
Leo Osgood, an assistant dean and director of the Office of Minority Education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, is concerned about that, too. Himself African-American, he says a "minority" designation leaves people feeling like "three-quarters citizens," because it says, "You have no power, you have no numbers, you have no votes. The psychological consequence is that people don't feel part of the system."
Still, his office, which has held its name since its founding in 1978, has no plans to change it. "I just do my job," he says, "let words be words, and try to get on with it."
But Dr. Osgood wonders what will happen in, say, 2028, when according to projected census figures, European-Americans will make up less than half of the country's population. "Will 'majority' people be comfortable with the term 'minority?' " he asks. "How will they then feel?" By that time, he speculates, a Washington think tank will have coined another term to protect those in power.
But if an umbrella term for underrepresented people is now necessary for legal and funding purposes, Allen, of Boston Medical Center, wonders what that should be. Some people have suggested "diversity." "But in 'diversity,' " she asks, "who is counted? The disabled, the mentally ill - there are huge other groups that come into play, the majority of which are not [ethnic] minorities. So who will be included - and who will be shut out?"
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